Why the answer to Donald Trump, eco-tragedy and the rest is sometimes just: HONK! – Laura Waddell

A goose who honks at villagers offers catharsis for those feeling helpless amid the epic political and environmental tragedies of the modern world, writes Laura Waddell.

A scene from Untitled Goose Game, which says more about human feelings of helplessness in troubled times than the actual animals, even if they do HONK! (Picture: House House/Panic)

It’s a lovely morning in the village, and you are a horrible goose. HONK!

So begins Untitled Goose Game, currently the best-selling game on the Nintendo Switch and Epic Store for PC, and the founding of a new wave of memes. Nothing else is quite setting digital culture aflap at the moment like this one small white bird.

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Back in 2016, Michael McMaster tweeted a screen grab of a conversation. “People think game development means you get to play games all day, but they’re wrong – it means you talk about geese.” The chat showed the first stirrings of Untitled Goose Game.

A real goose reacts with horror at its portrayal in Untitled Goose Game, presumably by honking... (Picture: Phil Wilkinson)

“Let’s make a game about this,” started Stuart Gillespie-Cook, a developer at studio House House, attaching a stock image of a generic goose. “Best thing about a goose is the bit above their nose.”

Fellow developers got on board in the replies. “Honking noise,” contributed Nico Disseldorp. “The whole animal is just two colours. It’s crazy.” “Also the beak frowns always.” “Yeah they’re always cross. Ducks are happy, geese are cross.” “You’ve really summed it up.”

It was the combination of an eccentric idea with a kind of ‘dare accepted’ gutsiness to see it through.

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Goose adopts piglet - picture

The idea is exceptionally simple. A goose terrorises a sweet village and its villagers going about their business in the way that real geese do – by flapping their wings, pecking, and most of all, honking at people.

Players press y to honk, sometimes with the intention of startling a gardener, schoolboy, or shopkeeper with a view to stealing items from them, but mostly players press y to honk just for the sheer enjoyment of honking, while going about one’s business as a horrible goose.

Goose honks at Trump

After short clips were shared online, a groundswell of interest in the game bubbled up until it became reality, and Untitled Goose Game kept the working title fans had grown fond of through word of mouth.

It’s a little reminiscent of bizarrely wonderful Katamari Damacy, the game where players roll up items to a huge, pointless ball of stuff, but it also shares some of the early internet’s taste for irreverent animals. ‘Badger, badger.’

The simple concept and colour palette combine to perfect escapism in this age of hyperreality and daily horrors, but the game allows users the cathartic expression of dissolute, negative feelings through its petty, annoying actions.

It has, naturally, given rise to a slew of memes and parodies. A tweet that will resonate with many online commentators by @nailheadparty reads “It is a beautiful day on the internet, and you are a horrible p****.” There are inevitable photoshops of the goose chasing down Trump to honk at him.

Different shades of horrible emerge, from mildly inconsiderate to homicidal. It is chaos, wrapped in a small, annoying, feathery package, with an expression impossible to read any more deeply.

In the last few years, a niche subculture celebrating anti-social animals has emerged online, captured best by the Twitter account @binanimals which rejoices in sharing images of scavenging creatures such as raccoons, pigeons, and the ibis (known in Australia and New Zealand as a ‘bin chicken’).

Captions are often explicitly political, always rooting for the working classes, and with an anarchist or Robin Hood flavour. As squirrels run away with stolen goods, the wider context is how animals respond and adapt to the detritus of our messy, urban lifestyles and capitalism’s excessive detritus and garbage, and how they meet their need to live and eat in the same spaces.

Goose is not a revolutionary

Followers cheer on clips of subway rats dragging slices of pizza bigger than their own bodies with a whisper of latent desire to see nature take over and upend our daily lives. It must be annoying to residents in some North American cities when raccoons rake through their bins, just like foxes and seagulls do here, but it’s fascinating and undoubtedly impressive that some of them have learned to unpick anti-raccoon locks and carry on feasting.

Many humans are also struggling to survive in a hard system. These animals express some of the same needs and impulses we have, in a more explicit, carnally base way.

But it’s hard to read a revolutionary spirit into this Goose. It’s not a cipher for the greater good. The Goose is an autonomous being and just pointlessly horrible. Neither is it violent or macho, but simply contrary.

There’s no sign that the Goose even cares about the people of the village enough to want to spite them on a personal level. The Goose’s thoughts are gloriously unknown. We can’t access its headspace, only inhabit its body. That brings with it its own kind of satisfaction.

While running riot and honking at people is a deeply fun way to let off steam, there’s little emotional vulnerability at risk, even by those inconvenienced. What’s really being attacked is self-satisfied orderliness.

Perhaps this is why Untitled Goose Game and @binanimals feel compatible, even if they’re approaching nature vs man in very different ways. Perhaps the Goose is actually good. Perhaps the Goose is the only good thing about that village, shaking up its neat topiary and taking toys from stupid children.

But it’s not just this Goose. Birds in general, but especially the horrible ones, are having their cultural moment. It’s the year of the anti-social avian.

If you aren’t familiar with the intriguing story of the murderous cassowary from back in April, I recommend searching for it. One of the headlines of the year has to go to the New York Times, which ran the piece “A Giant Bird Killed Its Owner. Now It Could Be Yours.”

And let’s not forget the mysterious, pointless chaos of the mechanical birds, drones, which kicked off the year by grounding flights.

With Millennials and GenXers in a more financially precarious position than predecessor generations, and all of us feeling helpless in the face of the epic political and environmental tragedies unfolding daily, it’s no surprise then that inhabiting a horrible goose is all many of us want to do at the end of a day in the village. HONK!